Reports surfaced a few months ago that Apple CEO Tim Cook has visited BMW in Germany to explore the possibility of using the automaker’s compact electric “city car,” the i3, as the basis for a possible Apple Car.
Subsequent reporting suggested that the i3’s role in “Project Titan” had been put on hold. We were intrigued, however, so when BMW let us borrow an i3 for a weekend the past August, we jumped at the chance.
What would it be like to drive what could be a glimpse into Apple’s automaking future?
As it turned out, we had the perfect trip planned for the i3: a little over 200 miles, round-trip, from suburban New Jersey to the Catskills in upstate New York. If Apple builds an Apple Car, it’s expected that it will be electric, and biggest problem for electric cars to overcome is “range anxiety” — the fear that you’ll run out of juice and be stranded.
Our i3 was the “range extended” version, equipped with a small gas motor than kicks in when the batteries are drained. It doesn’t drive the wheels; rather, it generates electricity to power the motor. Coming in at around $46,000, this version of the i3 is good for 150 miles, according to BMW.
So how did what could be the Apple Car do on the journey? Read on to find out.
The i3 is a futuristic 4-door. But the rear doors are 'suicide' doors -- they open in the opposite direction as normal doors. The car can seat 4 people.
First order of business was to top off the charge. I had to pull it up in front of the my house due to some awkward issues with my garage. The charge cable plugs into a wall outlet and rejuices the battery VERY SLOWLY.
BMW has partnered with a company called ChargePoint to provide fee-based charging around the US. Depending on the type of charge station you find, getting fresh electrons into the i3 can be a lot faster that using an outlet at home. BMW can also set you up with the fast home-charging station.
Our trip would be about 220 miles both ways, from northern New Jersey to the Catskills in upstate New York.
Cargo capacity for the i3 isn't great, but it could handle enough gear to get my 9-year-old through 2 weeks of camp.
There isn't really a dashboard. And here's where some of the affinities with the possible Apple Car start to emerge. The i3 has these iPad-like floating screens. The image quality from the backing camera was quite good!
BMW has been selling the i3 since 2013. It comes in two versions: an all-electric model and one with a gas-engine 'range extender.' My test car had the range extender, which gives the vehicle a claimed 150 miles of range.
Apple also has a pair of car guys on the team. And they're car guys with strong opinions. That's Jony Ive on the left and Mark Newson on the right. Both are extremely successful designers.
Google's work on the self-driving Google Car may be pushing Apple to get into the transportation space. But Ive and Newson aren't really fans of podmobiles.
The Toyota Echo is a car that Ive loves to hate. He dissed it in a New Yorker profile. Newson told the Wall Street Journal that he thinks most modern cars are terrible.
Like all electric cars, the i3 is propelled by a compact electric motor connected to a battery pack.
There's a small gas motor on the range-extended i3. It uses a 2-gallon gas tank and can keep the car rolling for another 50 miles after the batteries are exhausted.
Inside, the i3 is less the Ultimate Driving Machine than the Car of the Future. The start-stop button, gearshift, and park selector are all located on that large stalk on the right. The acceleration is very electric car: quick and to-the-point. Cruising along, the i3 is pretty comfy, and the handling is surprisingly sharp for a cube-like machine running on narrow tires.
A perfect place for your shades! The overall vibe of the interior is soft, curvaceous, and eco-friendly, with natural textures and tones everywhere. The i3 lacks most of the imposing Germanic elements that BMW drivers are familiar with.
... to the Chevy Volt, which also features a gas-electric hybrid drivetrain, similar to the range-extended i3's.
Outside, the i3 updates classic BMW design cues for the 21st century. The split grille has become abstract.
The wheels are large -- something that keeps the i3 from looking too compact or economical. They give it a solid stance.
On the luxury front, I've driven the Tesla Model S, in rear-wheel and all-wheel-drive configurations.
Uh oh! After about 80 miles, the battery was spent! But then the gas-motor was ready to take over. Notice that the i3 has calculated that we have another 63 miles of range. That's enough to get us to our destination. Then we can look for a place to recharge.
The range anxiety wasn't completely erased by the range-extender. We didn't want to get too far from fuel, so we stopped for some ice cream ...
Gassing up the i3 is an experience in silly. Two bucks and less than a gallon was enough to get us another 30 miles of range. The whole refuelling process took about ... 30 seconds.
After we dropped James off at camp, we needed to top off the tank again. Would you like fries with that?
The plan was to find a charging station and switch back to all-electric mode for the trip home, after spending a couple of hours having dinner. Guided by the i3, we found the ChargePoint location just fine.
It's like plugging in an iPhone. But this is where a critical flaw with the i3 emerged. To fully recharge the battery, we would have had to wait until 11:00 PM. It was around 6 PM at the time. The charge station was faster than home-charging from an outlet. But it wasn't FAST charging, the type that can get you going again in under an hour.
But that wasn't going to get us home, so we ran the i3 in all-electric mode until the battery was drained again, then we switched back to range-extended mode. That meant another gas stop. I think I overpaid for a gallon of regular. But the tank was full again.
The i3 was easily the best non-luxury, non-high-performance EV I've ever driven. It can't completely eliminate range anxiety, but it comes very, very close. You simply have to be OK with stopping for gas every 50 miles, or taking long enough breaks to fully recharge, or get good at mapping out your journeys so you can hit fast-charging stations. This is a (mostly) electric car that can comfortably deliver 150 miles of range, providing you with the option of sipping small amounts of gas until you can properly rejuice the battery.
This would be an almost ideal platform for the Apple Car -- if Apple is serious about creating a car and partnering with a big car maker. It passed the ultimate test: Could it complete a road-trip at the limit of its range? And frankly, the i3 could use Apple. I really liked the car, but unfortunately, it isn't setting any sales records for BMW right now.
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